Rolling Stewardship for a Tortoise?

Imagine, if you will, a tortoise. You are a forty-year-old parent and your ten-year-old daughter brings home a baby tortoise that she wants to keep as a pet. You permit her to keep it, and the creature quickly becomes a most cherished member of the family. After some time goes by, you realize that this is no ordinary turtle. It’s one of the famous Galapagos tortoises that live for 170 years. Suddenly your daughter is very distraught that no one alive in the family now will be around to take care of the tortoise in the last half of her life. Not only is it a little stressful for your daughter to contemplate her own mortality at this young age, but it’s unusual that the whole family has been forced to consider its obligation to care for a living thing into the distant future.
Image by Catriona MacCallum via Wikimedia Commons
In order to put your daughter’s mind at ease, you promise that you are going to make sure that someone will always be there to care for the beloved tortoise. You come up with the concept of rolling stewardship, the ongoing care of a responsibility across generations. Instructions will be written down, grandchildren will be taught, the tortoise will be honored like a sacred creature in family tradition. But still it is not so simple because you realize that when it comes down to it, no one knows what is going to happen. It is impossible to give a 100% guarantee that the tortoise will be protected long after you and your living kin are gone from this earth.
Obviously, I’m using this story as a way to relate the problem of nuclear waste to something mundane that can be grasped as a matter of simple common sense. The tortoise management problem makes it clear that we have no control over what will happen after our death, and that goes without saying how little control we have over our destinies while we are alive. We have no financial incentive to say, “Yes, absolutely, we can guarantee that the tortoise will be cared for. Our tortoise protection culture is infallible.” To say such a thing would be laughable. Yet when a nuclear “safety” bureaucracy utters such inane promises about its ability to control the distant future, the public is expected to accept them as reasonable, and quite often it does.
The problem of the tortoise does not involve a high consequence risk. If she dies an untimely death in her second century, that’s a tragedy for her and the family that loved her, but not for an entire ecosystem. In contrast, when it comes to nuclear waste, we need the 100% guarantee, but it is, of course, impossible. If someone tells you that a plan to bury nuclear waste is safe, just remember this one self-evident truth that can be perceived by anyone with a normally functioning brain: no one knows what is going to happen.
Native American myth called North America Turtle Island
Unfortunately, institutions are like organisms that care only about their own survival. They are programmed to perpetuate their own existence. When simple logic and facts get in the way, they adopt the four-D strategy: divert, deflect, deny and deceive, and that last item on the list includes heavy doses of self-deception as well. This should not be surprising. We should get over being outraged. We should not expect the nuclear industry (which includes its supposed safety regulators) to suddenly understand it has to do the right thing and fold up its operations. We should realize that these organizations are going to do what they do until they are stopped by an opposing force.
If we put aside concerns about accidents and costs, we can see that the unsolvable problem of nuclear waste disposal is enough reason to put an end to nuclear power. Who would continue to use a toilet that doesn’t flush? The public has given its assent to nuclear power and nuclear weapons because it has been told that nuclear waste burial is the solution and it will be achieved soon, always sometime soon. This promise works because it makes intuitive sense that this should be the solution. Throughout human evolution burial has sufficed as a way to deal with unwanted substances. Out of sight was out of mind. The earth could deal with whatever we threw in it because our waste was, until the Industrial Revolution, always organic.
The nuclear industry now seems to be getting nervous that the public is waking up to the fact that the burial solution just doesn’t exist. Projects like the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada have failed partly because of NIMBY political objections, but more importantly because of legitimate technical conclusions that the long-term stability of the waste containers and the geological features of the site could not be guaranteed. When confused, repeat the mantra: no one knows what is going to happen.
But why should you take it from me? Listen to what these highly qualified scientists have to say about the subject:

1. Jean-Pierre Petit, former director of France’s Centre national de la recherche scientifique in an interview broadcast on La Voix de la Russie (my translation) speaking about French plans to bury nuclear waste in Bure, France:

… the storage of wastes with long half-lives poses acute problems. In general, there are two sorts of wastes. There are those that can be called “passive,” like asbestos, and those that can be called “active” that evolve chemically, decompose, and eventually produce flammable gas, and heat. Nuclear wastes obviously belong in the second “active” category. They release heat by their  exo-energetic transmutation. So storage sites require powerful ventilation systems that need to be maintained for centuries. Some wastes that are plastic decompose relatively quickly, releasing hydrogen. When the air reaches 4% hydrogen, it becomes explosive.
In the year 2000, they began to store various types of waste, one of which was mercury, underground at a mine in Alsace. In 2002, a fire broke out. They wanted to get everything out, but they realized it could never be recovered… A fire in a mine is more complicated to manage than a fire above ground. It’s like an oven. The heat has no way out. A small fire can quickly result in elevated temperatures at which the containers begin to melt.
In Bure, a fire would be catastrophic. The wastes are vitrified (in a glass-like state), but glass is not really a solid. It’s a very viscous fluid. At ordinary temperatures, it can do the job for thousands of years. It is not soluble. But the weak point of glass is its low resistance to heat. At 600°C, the glass will flow and liberate its contents. Underground, this temperature could be reached very quickly. In the mine there are also support structures made of metal and reinforced concrete.  Concrete melts above 1100°. The clay in Bure is also saturated with water. It couldn’t withstand being heated above 70°. The creators of the CIGEO project have great faith in a material called bentonite with which they hope to seal the caverns. It’s a particular type of clay that can absorb water and dilate, but it has the same problem as clay in terms of heat resistance.
Fire hazards come not only from the concern about hydrogen explosions. The plan at Bure is to deposit some elements treated with bitumen, but bitumen becomes fluid at 60° and flammable at 300°. Any way you look at it, this project is absurd.
The only thing to do now is to leave everything on the surface, even for centuries if necessary, as a way to make them less toxic by transmutation. There is no hurry. But the government and the barons of nuclear are exerting an enormous pressure to begin burial by 2015. They want to hide all signs of the nuisance that has accumulated for half a century and given nuclear energy such a bad image. If the CIGEO project is realized, this will be a precedent for nucelopaths the world over, and they will all follow suit, saying, “après moi, le déluge!”

(A more complete translation of this interview is here).

2. A similarly persuasive argument was made by Chris Busby in his study of Swedish plans for the burial of nuclear waste. The Wikispooks article on Busby’s career summed up the problem this way:

… Busby calculated that the sealed canisters would explode due to helium released by the decay of alpha emitters within the 100,000 year period required by the Swedish environmental court and indeed probably within 1000 years. This matter is still unresolved. He pointed out that the release of the waste would make the Baltic area uninhabitable since it equated to several thousand Chernobyl accidents worth of radioactivity.”

(More on this topic in this video interview and in Busby’s published report on Forsmark).

   The makers of these nuke waste disposal dreams could always say that these criticisms were merely speculation, but then American plans for burial came to a grinding halt in February 2014 when the WIPP facility in New Mexico experienced an explosion that has shut it down indefinitely. At a recent public hearing in Ontario for plans to create an underground suppository there, Canadian regulators were heard to say that the failure at WIPP occurred because there was a “degraded safety culture.” In a report in local media on the hearings, a critic of the proposal said, “WIPP was once said to be ‘state of the art’ and comparable to the OPG DGR [Ontario Power Generation Deep Geologic Repository], but since the incident, OPG has ‘thrown WIPP under the bus.’”
The Canadian nuclear industry’s response was a bizarre defense because the high likelihood of a degraded safety culture over time is precisely the reason people oppose nuclear energy. The Canadian regulators’ hubris is almost more troubling than the actual disaster at WIPP. Assuming they do have such a great safety culture in the present moment, there is no guarantee it will stay this way 20, 100 or 10,000 years into the future. All it would take is a government keen on budget cuts and hostile to unbiased scientific research, but hey, that would never happen, would it? When in doubt, just repeat: no one knows what is going to happen.

Every time we build and operate a nuclear reactor, we do so with the implicit assumption that we shall forever be able to contain the radioactive poisons we create in the reactor. In doing so, we presume that we can predict the future for centuries and millennia to come, that we can isolate and protect nuclear reactors and nuclear waste from every single catastrophe that nature and man can inflict, including earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, asteroids, human error, terrorism and war. History has already shown us that such assumptions are indeed both foolish and futile.

Physicians for Social Responsibility, April, 2011, p. 11.

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